Almost a quarter of Lesotho’s population will require food aid between January and March as a result of Covid-19 restrictions, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has warned.
More than 580,000 people out of a population of 2.2 million are estimated to be food insecure, despite predictions of normal to above average rains this year and the potential for above average cereal production.
The FAO said Covid-19 had reduced household incomes, harming people’s ability to buy fertiliser or to hire workers, which was “likely to limit the potential increases in yields”.
The situation in Lesotho has been exacerbated by extended lockdowns in neighbouring South Africa to curb the spread of the virus, which the agency said would prolong high levels of unemployment and loss of income.
The number of people requiring food assistance this year is about 35% higher than the number between October 2019 and March 2020, said the FAO.
In 2019, the UN appealed for $34 million (£25 million) to provide food aid for half a million people until May last year, following poor rains over two consecutive seasons. It warned that thousands of people were close to famine.
Lesotho imports the bulk of its goods and services from South Africa and has been feeling the effects of tougher lockdown restrictions imposed by President Cyril Ramaphosa earlier this month.
South Africa has now surpassed 1.3 million cases of Covid-19 and has consistently recorded more than 10,000 new daily cases since 1 January. Ramaphosa has closed all land borders until 15 February and imposed restrictions on public gatherings.
“The increase in the prevalence and severity of food insecurity has been predominantly driven by the effects of the lockdown measures to contain the Covid-19 pandemic,” said the FAO.
“The restrictions on the movement of people and the closure of non-essential industries resulted in the loss of jobs and incomes, reducing people’s capacity to access adequate diets. The restrictions affected the workforce within the country, but also migrant workers in South Africa.”
The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (Fews Net) had also noted that below average incomes were being recorded in Lesotho due to Covid-19 restrictions and poor 2020 harvests, compounded by above-average staple food prices.
In its December report, Fews Net said some areas of the country were at crisis hunger levels because of “low food access driven by depleted own-produced food stocks, below-average incomes, and slightly above average staple food prices”.
It said: “Households are trying to mitigate existing food consumption gaps through market food purchases from earned income. Agricultural labour opportunities are seasonally increasing; however, wages are below average, and market food purchases are not expected to fully cover food consumption gaps.”
According to Fews Net, an estimated 93,000 migrant workers returned home to Lesotho at the beginning of lockdowns in South Africa last March. This resulted in a significant reduction in remittances, an essential source of income for a large proportion of people in Lesotho.
Although some people started returning to South Africa for work at the beginning of October, Fewsnet said labour migration was still below average as both countries’ economies had not yet recovered from the impact of Covid-19 lockdowns. The requirement to produce a negative Covid-19 test at the border is also a limitation.